Posted at 4:10 p.m. EST Saturday, November 1, 1997

Spunky `Cinderella'

Lavish new TV musical outfits itself beautifully for the '90s

TV/Radio Writer

Disney's casting of ``Cinderella'' was intended to erase racial and ethnic distinctions and open the story's appeal to all viewers: Jason Alexander (from left), Paolo Montalban, Brandy, Whitney Houston, Bernadette Peters, Natalie Desselle and Veanne Cox. Randee St. Nicholas/ABC

I never much liked Cinderella, that passive lass hoping fate would deliver Prince Charming to her humble hearth. Surely even Disney's new made-for-TV musical version couldn't give spirit to a hopelessly outdated heroine, let alone banish the recent knowledge of what can happen to real-life princesses. My mistake.

After all these centuries, that glass slipper still fits. But it's worn by a far more intrepid female character than the wimp of yesteryear. And tonight's savvy, sparkling production of Rodgers & Hammerstein's ``Cinderella'' on ABC (at 7 p.m. on WSOC-TV, Channel 9, in Charlotte) will revive the most jaded romantic with its persuasive insistence that love can be real, yet magical.

``It was one of our main things to make sure that the story had some relevance to a '90s audience,'' director Robert Iscove told TV critics at a news conference in July.

One way to make it relevant was to recruit a cast that reflects America's increasingly multicultural society. ``The idea is to say to all children, and to the children in all adults of every color, every walk of life, that dreams can be made to come true,'' said executive producer Debra Martin Chase.

Iscove, Chase and the rest of the ``Cinderella'' creative team have achieved their objective. The Beaux Arts-style sets from the early 1900s are glamorous, yet unobtrusive. The costumes are delicious, and the songs are pretty. However, it is the talent and the writing that are this production's bedrock strengths.

Featured is a multiracial cast of exceptional abilities, including Bernadette Peters, Whoopi Goldberg, Whitney Houston, Jason Alexander, Victor Garber, Veanne Cox and Natalie Desselle. Cinderella is Brandy, the pop singer known more recently for her starring role in TV's ``Moesha.'' Her Prince is played by Paolo Montalban (no relation to Ricardo), a handsome Broadway chorister plucked from ``The King and I.''

The producers have crafted a script that presents Cinderella and her relationship with the Prince in an altogether updated light. The changes become clear in the opening scene, when the two accidentally meet in the village marketplace, he sightseeing incognito and she attending her evil step-relatives.

A real live girl

When the Prince tries to flirt with Cinderella, she makes it clear she's not sure a guy who'd pick up strangers knows how to treat a girl properly.

``Like a princess, I suppose?'' he says teasingly.

``No,'' replies she. ``Like a person, with kindness and respect.''

Well said. And well done, for such is Brandy's onscreen charm that she can put those lines over without sounding like a budding Gloria Steinem.

The rest of the script follows through on this initial promise to round out Cinderella's personality. She's not the only one who gets a character reworking. This Prince has feelings, too, and one of them is to find a woman who will add something to his life.

``What he's really looking for is a mate, someone that he can laugh with, that he can share his kingdom with,'' said Iscove. ``And by bringing her out of her shell and him finding that mate, the two of them come together and find something that neither one had before.'' So much for the Mars/Venus school of antagonism.

Nor are the Prince's folks remote monarchs from the Windsorian school of parenting. They want what's best for him. Goldberg and Garber play for comic relief in classic Jewish mom and dad fashion: she overbearing and hysteric, he wry and dry.

Even the evil stepmother has dimension, though that owes less to the script than to the powerful acting and singing by Peters, the most experienced musical performer in this production.

When she lectures her stepdaughters on how to land the Prince -- in a scene that hilariously parodies the husband-snaring manual ``The Rules'' -- Cinderella interrupts to ask about love. The resulting dialogue cues Peters into a breathtakingly sharp and heartfelt rendition of that disillusionment standard, ``Falling in Love With Love.''

Pop meets Broadway

Speaking of that song, theater purists will note that it and two others have been added to the original Rodgers & Hammerstein ``Cinderella'' score, written for TV back in 1957.

Mary Rodgers, who administers her father's estate, said at the July news conference that she was comfortable with the additions because they enhanced the show. It's hard to argue otherwise, since the score for ``Cinderella,'' while pleasant, is not on a par with ``Carousel'' or ``South Pacific.''

No matter. When Cinderella and the Prince sing one of the new numbers, ``The Sweetest Sounds,'' five minutes into the opening, it fits emotionally.

And it sounds right. The arrangers have kept enough edge so that while the tunes in ``Cinderella'' don't have the big brassy feel of 40 years ago, they're still show music.

However, the delivery of those songs varies. It's not necessarily because some talents are lesser than others, but because of the performers' differing entertainment backgrounds.

In one of the few jarring moments, fairy godmother Houston belts her solo like it's the Super Bowl all over again. Brandy brings a pop style to her numbers that, while sweetly melodic, is at times emotionally flat. In ``The Sweetest Sounds,'' she displays the eyes-skyward, fixed expression reminiscent of so many MTV videos.

By contrast, Montalban -- trained in musical theater -- displays great emotional range as he sings. He also has a pretty terrific voice, though not yet as terrific as the enduringly sexy and wicked Peters.

Choosing between the traditions of pop music vs. theater is a matter of taste and, probably, age. Offering that range was part of the producers' goal to make this ``Cinderella'' production accessible to all viewers.

Mostly, the differences don't matter. When the irrepressible Jason Alexander, affecting a Russian accent as the Prince's manservant, Lionel, goes leaping and rollicking down a street in ``The Prince Is Giving a Ball/Your Majesties,'' you'll be amused regardless of what CDs you listen to.

And it would take a cynical heart to resist the Brandy-Montalban duet, ``Do I Love You Because You're Beautiful?'' Under the expert touch of the Disney-assembled team, it becomes a lovely anthem not only to love, but to seeing past someone's appearance and into his or her soul.